July 22, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Big Little Lies”


It’s odd for a successful TV series to be asked to justify its continued existence, but that’s where HBO’s BIG LITTLE LIES found itself after the network looked at the Season 1 ratings (not just high but steadily rising, which is almost unheard-of these days), and expanded the show from its original one-time-only limited series status to a second season.  There was a general feeling that if HBO was going to go through all the trouble and expense of not just gathering the original stellar cast back again, but adding to it no less than living legend Meryl Streep, there had better be a pretty special creative idea at the heart of the new season.

In truth, there wasn’t.  David E. Kelley, the showrunner and sole screenwriter, and novelist Liane Moriarty (who shared story credit on the season’s scripts), only came up with one fully-developed new plotline, and it wasn’t terribly original:  following the death in the Season 1 finale of wife abuser and rapist Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) at the direct hands of Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), and the cover-up by Perry’s wife Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her best friends Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Renata (Laura Dern), Perry’s mother Mary Louise (Streep) came to town to investigate her son’s death, peer into Celeste’s private life, fight for custody of her grandsons, and generally make passive-aggressive trouble.

That story was told more or less beginning to end, while other narrative ideas remained mere shards, raised and then forgotten (did Celeste’s daughter ever decide to go to college?) or never really fleshed out (the relationship between Bonnie and her own ailing mother).  We’ll likely never know how much of the uneven storytelling arose from the reported behind-the-scenes conflicts that saw season 2 director Andrea Arnold pushed out in postproduction in favor of Season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallee, a charge that HBO hasn’t denied and that the cast has deafeningly ignored.  Even if Arnold was bypassed, we can’t know whether that hurt the show or improved it, given that Arnold, an extremely talented indie filmmaker, had never shown much affinity for mainstream narrative.

Whatever may have happened off the set, the show that remained was polished to a sparkling sheen and uniformly well-acted, especially by Kidman and Streep, but often dramatically listless, and all too tied to the events of the first season.  Witherspoon’s plot for the season concerned the after-effects of husband Ed (Adam Scott) discovering her Season 1 adultery, while Kravitz was given more screen time, but mostly to stare moodily as she contemplated her guilt over Perry’s death and her lifelong struggles with her mother.  Dern had the comic material and she gave it her all, but the result was a one-note Renata, all aggression all the time.  Woodley spent the season still dealing with Perry’s assault on her, causing PTSD that was preventing her from starting a new romance with a nice co-worker.  Every so often someone would mention the cops continuing to look into Perry’s death, although Detective Quinlan (Merrin Dungey) did little more than periodically glare at the women.

Tonight’s season finale provided some quick-fire closure, as Celeste won her custody battle (and Mary Louise left town) after a fun cross-examination sequence that let Kidman and Streep go after each other David E. Kelley style, Madeline and Ed renewed their vows, there were break-ups for both Bonnie and Renata, and Jane was able to get physical with her new boyfriend.  The final sequence had all the women voluntarily joining Bonnie as she went to confess to the police, although one would think that charges of perjury and obstruction of justice against Celeste would bring Mary Louise back in short order to claim custody again.

Big Little Lies felt perfunctory and vague in its second season, without any meaningful revelations about any of its characters.  It got by thanks to its splendid production values and the quality of its cast.  The ratings this time remained solid, although without Season 1’s lift, so a third season is certainly possible.  Next time, though, all concerned will need to find a motive more powerful than cashing paychecks, because what began as an exciting event has quickly become little more than a high-class yet routine soap.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."